Southern California Hikes with Santa Catalina Views

By Charleen - November 14, 2023

For over a decade, we have aspired to visit the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. The largest of these, Santa Catalina, has the most glamorous past, but each of the islands host unique wildlife and a beautiful sense of timeless serenity. Before embarking on a Lindblad cruise to the Channel Islands, we arrived early to the Port of Los Angeles area where I grew up. We enjoyed several days of hiking, eating and visiting with family and friends. We rediscovered old favorites and discovered new ones, including a set of short hikes with views of Catalina. 

View of Santa Catalina Island, including the isthmus where we would be kayaking in 4 days
Great blue heron and ruddy ducks at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Smuggler's Cove or Sacred Cove (just east of Abalone Cove)
"ga xao xa ot" - spicy lemongrass chicken wings with fried garlic and dried chilies at Little Sister.

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Visiting Southern California before the Cruise

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Seeking a relatively flat walk with wildlife and other points of visual interest that would be accessible to my 91-year-old mother, we decided to return to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. The reserve has about 5 miles of trails, and the Inner Bolsa Bay loop is 1.6 miles plus two optional overlooks.
This is one of the few remaining coastal wetlands along the coast of California, and a birdwatcher's haven. 
Great blue heron in foreground of cordgrass with snowy egret in distance.
Right off the bridge, we saw a hunting Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret. We also saw Great Egrets, distinguished from the Snowy by size and having a bright yellow beak.
Great egret. Photo by my husband.
We read about the endangered silvery legless lizard, wondering idly what distinguishes it from a snake. Apparently legless lizards have eyelids, ear holes and a detachable tail if they feel the need to escape from a predator. They may have rudimentary limbs and are not able to unhinge their jaws to swallow larger prey. While we did not see a legless lizard, we did see a side-blotched lizard. 
Side blotched lizard. Photo by my husband.
On the notice board on the way out, I noticed that there were free guided walks with the Amigos de Bolsa Chica on the first, second and fourth Saturday of each month. I was able to sign up for an 8:30 Saturday bird walk for the following morning. 

There was a lot of Forster tern flight activity in the morning, and our guide brought a telescope that allowed us to see a greater variety of birds in the distance, such as the black crown night heron. She also identified two reddish egrets, grey willets - drab little birds with highly contrasted underwings in flight, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, Western grebes, American widgens and pointed out the cordgrass (with cages to protect nesting sites of ridgeway rails) and pickle weed.  
Beach sand verbena. Photo by my husband.
We witnessed a Great Egret catching and eating a fish. They stalk slowly, with lots of freezing, before the rapid stab with the beak. Then the fish is tossed and caught to be swallowed. Click here to see the Instagram movie including the egret eating its fish
Great egret with fish
Although we did not have time to walk there and it is not the right season, there is a stand of palm trees in the preserve that hosts nesting blue herons in March. 

Lunch at Peking Restaurant 北京小館, Westminster

The trip to Bolsa Chica had been inspired by a desire to return to Peking Restaurant in Westminster, CA. This little strip mall restaurant has been a favorite of ours for 37 years, after we discovered it on a drive back from UC Irvine where I spent the summer doing fish research. It not only serves the biggest and most delicious Northern Chinese style pot-sticker dumplings that we have had anywhere, but also a delicious version basil eggplant that converted me from disliking to loving eggplant, as described in my eggplant blog post

On this visit, we noticed that they had replaced the white board that used to display their special dishes written out in Chinese characters with photographs of various dishes. They also added little placards at the table depicting lunch specials. One of these photos with short segments of bright green long beans, red bell pepper and minced pork caught my eye. This delicious, colorful dish, named "Black bean with straight bean" has become a new favorite! It is wonderfully tasty, with rich flavors added by just the right amount of Chinese fermented black beans. These black beans are also the ingredient that elevates Grace Young's version of beef and broccoli to new heights, as detailed in my blog adaptation.
Lunch sized portion of "35. Black bean with straight bean"
Otherwise, the restaurant looked the same as it always has. The flavor, quality and value of their food is exemplary and the hostess friendly. As soon as we walked in, she started an order of guo tieh (literally potsticker) dumplings for us, and we also ordered the boiled dumplings. Sadly, they no longer offer the pork-chinese chive dumplings, but we enjoyed the pork-cabbage dumplings. I am not sure how she knew we were there for the potstickers as it had been 7 years since we last visited. 
Kuo-Tieh pan-fried dumplings (Potstickers)
My mom always likes to order one of their fish dishes, and this time we tried white fish and soft tofu slices in a spicy broad bean sauce. 
Lunch portion of "54. Sliced fish with hot bean sauce"
Upon chatting with the hostess, we learned that the original chef, 90-year-old ?Tse-tse Chen, still cooks there! The restaurant was opened by Chef Chen's son 41 years ago, as she does not speak English. These days she mostly cooks the staff lunch, but will fill in if they are short-staffed, and still does most of the vegetable chopping. Indeed, she was working at the wok when they called her over to meet fans of her cooking for nearly 40 years. She declined to have her picture taken, modestly saying in Chinese that she did not look good (不好看 Bù hǎokàn). I told her she is very beautiful ( Hěn měi).
Seven years ago - the restaurant has not changed much 
Link to Instagram movie of dishes we enjoyed with their menu names. If you are in the area, please support this small restaurant serving delicious, authentic Chinese food. 

Hiking Portuguese Bend Reserve

We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Los Angeles Torrance/Palos Verdes on 2633 Sepulveda Blvd, which was convenient to everywhere we wanted to go. After eating so much, we sought a nice morning hike. The Portuguese Bend Reserve is located straight up Crenshaw Blvd over the top of the Palos Verdes peninsula. The street parking in the area requires advance reservation (more than an hour before you go) and costs a bit more than $10. If you are willing to walk a little, there is free parking on Crenshaw Blvd north of Crest Road. As all the cars were parked on the east side of the road, going away from the reserve, we turned around and parked there, too.
Connector from Crenshaw to Rattlesnake Trailhead
When we arrived, we found an attractive flower-lined path with the moon in the background, leading to the Rattlesnake Trailhead. 
Descending Rattlesnake Trail at dawn.
We did a beautiful nearly 3-mile loop, starting with a steep descent down Rattlesnake Trail along a gully lined by rolling hills.
We proceeded counterclockwise to Burma Road. Due to shifting that has been occurring in this area, many of the lower trails were closed, making it easy for us to navigate. We took the right fork to travel the Eagle's Nest Road so we could get to a viewpoint before rejoining Burma Road. 
Eagle's Nest Trail
This segment of the trail had the morning sun in our eyes, so maybe going clockwise would work better. 
Sunrise on Eagle's Nest Trail
While we were gazing down to the ocean, we noticed a large rock on a peninsula (Inspiration Point) that Apple Maps showed lining one side of Smugglers Cove, and resolved to hike there tomorrow. 
After rejoining Burma Road, we went past outhouse facilities, and climbed up a short loop to another viewpoint, before returning to Crenshaw Blvd for the walk back to the car.  

Visiting Chinatown

It was sad to see the Los Angeles Chinatown so empty when we visited two years ago. Lots of shops were shuttered, but the Phoenix Bakery was still going strong with both sweet and savory (baked barbecue pork buns) treats, and we were gratified to visit several new shops, from the tea and noodles at Steep to the hand-made crafts at Chunky Things Gift shop.
Chunky Things Gift shop is at the base of this historic, but now closed, restaurant.
On this trip, the streets were noticeably busier, although still not to pre-pandemic levels. The bright photos of duck and other food brought us into Hop Woo, a restaurant celebrating its 30th anniversary. We enjoyed a Cantonese version of "Peking duck," which had nice crispy skin with some meat still attached. A duck cooked in Peking style would have been inflated with air to separate the skin from the meat before roasting. 
Duck meat, toppings and skin with buns
Irregardless, the bronzed duck skin is delicious sandwiched in a soft white bun with savory-sweet hoisin sauce, cilantro and crisp scallion whites. The skin pieces are served separate from the bulk of the tender duck pieces so it will stay crispy. 
My favorite dish of the day was the chicken feet in black bean sauce with the velvety soft texture and rich flavors, and everyone loved the pea shoots in garlic sauce. Overall, the food was tasty and plentiful, but we were disturbed by the use of styrofoam for water cups, dim sum, and leftovers. 
Stir-fried pea shoots in garlic sauce
Afterwards, we wandered through the beautiful archway of Chinatown Plaza, past statues of Sun Yat Sen, playful lion dogs and Bruce Lee. 
Bruce Lee Statue
We found the Chunky gift shop and bought some deliciously creative handmixed teas by Rich & Pour that can be brewed hot, or steeped with cool water overnight for a cold-brewed treat. I selected the Mango Sticky Rice blend with coconut milk green tea, and my husband wanted to try the Creamsicle Jasmine orange oolong.
Everything in this shop is made by an AAPI artist. And we saw the most adorable wooden toy dim sum tea set. 

Wayfarer's Chapel and Hiking Abalone Cove

After verifying that the coves we could see from the Portuguese Bend Reserve were Abalone Cove and Smuggler's Cove, I found out that the Abalone Cove parking lot did not open until 10 am. When we drove down Palos Verdes Drive South, we discovered that the land movement and settling that resulted in closure of some of the trails up above, caused cracks and rifts in the road. 

We arrived a bit early and decided to pull into the Wayfarer's Chapel parking lot. The Chapel is closed due to land shifting, but the grounds are open and stunningly beautiful with pamphlets for a self-guided tour.
From near the entrance to the chapel, designed by Lloyd Wright, we had beautiful views of Catalina Island framed by stately pines. 
We could peek into the Chapel itself, and view the triangular and trapezoidal glass roof pieces with the protective boughs of the trees folding over the top. 
Lots of hummingbirds sipped from bright pink flowers in the colonnade area, with more views of Catalina.
One downside to closure of the Chapel was that the bathrooms in the visiter center were locked, but I was able to ask an office worker to unlock it for me. However, he had locked it up again before we left, so my husband had to settle for an outhouse in Abalone Cove Reserve.
Cracks in the steps to the Visitor Center
The gate for the Abalone Cove parking area were up by the time we arrived, and it was easy to find parking.  
The lower lot to the beach was not open, so we parked in the upper lot and headed towards Portuguese Point.
Due to the shifting land, the Sea Dahlia trail we had planned to take to get to Inspiration Point was closed, but the ranger told us we could go all the way down to the beach and bypass the closed area.
Abalone Cove with Catalina in distance.
The west side of Abalone Cove has a sandy beach and the east side was filled with dark, polished stones that made a melodious sound as the tide went out. 
After ascending the Olmsted Trail near the other side of the Abalone Cove headlands, we discovered that they were relaying pipes, occluding part of the Smuggler's Trail.  The workers very nicely halted their backhoe work so we could walk past during the lull between changing sides for the one-lane that remained open to cars.
The shifting land caused buckling and dropoffs in the road.
After arriving on the far side of Smuggler's Cove, to our disappointment we found that we could not walk out to the rock along Inspiration Point that my husband had spotted from above. Although not marked as closed on the map (and evidently the ranger did not know about it), that last segment of trail was closed. We did however, get beautiful views of both Smuggler's Cove and the beach on the other side of Inspiration Point.
Smuggler's Cove or Sacred Cove
On our way back, we took the time to walk out on the Portuguese Point Loop Trail to the end of the headland between Smuggler's and Abalone Cove. Interestingly, the park brochures refer to what is labeled Smuggler's Cove on Apple Maps as Sacred Cove, and the hillside along the Sacred Cove View Trail on the way back was truly lovely.
We also got some great views of the Wayfarer's Chapel steeple from below, although the remainder of the glass church was shielded by tree boughs.
Although the distances were similar, this hike was a little harder than the day before, with a few extra ups and downs. Also we were walking during a hotter part of the day given the late opening of the parking area.

Lunch at Little Sister, Redondo Beach

After I found out that one of my dearest high school friends is vegetarian/pescaterian, yet chose a barbecue joint for our reunion to make sure everyone else was happy, I was determined to scope out some vegetarian-friendly restaurants that also served meat. This led me to the websites of several Thai, Vietnamese and Indian establishments along Redondo Beach and Torrance Beach.

Ever since we had driven past Carrot & Daikon Bahn Mi on our way to Peking Restaurant (I was wrong, they are not vegetarian place), I had a hankering for a perfect fresh baguette with a thin, crisp crust and some seasoned meat accompanied by Asian pickles and chilies.  So Little Sister, a Vietnamese fusion restaurant just a quarter mile from the Esplanade of Redondo Beach, fit the bill perfectly.

They only serve bahn mi up to 3 pm, and we got there around 1:15 so I thought I was safe. But they were sold out of everything with the five spice short rib including the bahn mi I had my eye on. 
So we split a lemongrass chicken bahn mi, to which I requested they add the beef tendon from the shortrib version. This sandwich was unbelieveably good. The bread had a shatteringly crisp crust overlying its soft airy interior, complemented by a symphony of flavors and textures from the chicken, cashew, mint, scallions, pickled daikon & carrot, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno. I did not really notice the tendon, which might play a more prominent textural contrast to the simpler short rib bahn mi. The fries were also perfect - crisp but not too thin, and nicely seasoned. I liked dipping them in the egg yolk mayo, while my husband stuck with the more traditional ketchup.
The four of us split the one bahn mi, a huge bowl of pho ga with all the toppings that most certainly is meant for sharing, spicy lemongrass chicken wings and a grilled pork rice paper summer roll. It was so good, I knew instantly that I wanted to bring my whole family back here during the winter holiday.

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🐾 Love2Chow Tips
• When visiting Bolsa Chica, there are restrooms at the north lot on Warner Ave near Pacific Coast Hwy, along with a small museum and gift shop. Most of the birding walks start at the South lot on Pacific Coast Hwy across the street from Huntington Beach. Although there is an outhouse here, you need to ask one of the Amigos de Bolsa Chica staff to unlock it for you. 

The Courtyard by Marriott Los Angeles Torrance/Palos Verdes was very conveniently located at 2633 Sepulveda Blvd. The bed was comfortable, there were plenty of outlets for charging electronics, a small refrigerator and free parking. We enjoyed our stay, although the first night was a bit rough because they had a sensor by the sink that would turn on a bright light when you walked past on the way to the bathroom. Two short segments of masking tape over the sensor took care of that problem. 


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